Compass Dreamwork

Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Category: World Dreams (page 1 of 2)

Dreamers In Good Company: The Social Dynamics of Dreamwork

Dreamwork is the opposite of naval-gazing. In my experience, people who take an interest in their dreams make good company, since they tend to become more self-aware, creative, curious, and caring. They also tend to develop better listening skills and social boundaries as well as more openness to diversity, concern for others, and willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in relationships. I might add an array of other healthy qualities I’ve observed in the community of dreamers: sense of humor, patience, kindness, intelligence, playfulness, maturity, integrity, generosity, flexibility… The list goes on.

Of course, dreamwork doesn’t automatically make us better people—but there’s no doubt that dreams can be significant contributing factors in our personal and social development. There are good, solid reasons why exploring our dreams, especially with others, really can make a difference in our lives and communities.

Before I give some of those reasons, I’d like to plunge into a real-life example of dreamwork in action. Not long ago, I attended the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I’ve been to four of these conferences so far, and have always found them to be stimulating gatherings where dreamers from all over the world and from diverse disciplines come together to share knowledge, insights, and inspiration.

This year, however, my own participation was iffy until the last minute. Just a few days before the conference, I had an echocardiogram which showed significant heart problems. I didn’t yet know exactly what this meant, but I was already having some disturbing symptoms, and understood that I was at risk for a heart attack, and might already be in the early stages of heart failure. My life expectancy and future options had abruptly changed. Was it safe to go to the conference at all? Would I be able to travel, participate fully, lead a daily dream group, interact with my colleagues and friends in such an intense social and professional environment?

Yes. Although I was in the midst of an emotional whirlwind, feeling just about as vulnerable as I could bear to be, I went to the conference and immersed myself in this vibrant community of dreamers for five days. I had a dear dreamworker friend for a traveling companion, and the support of my beloved partner via telephone, but I was also sustained by a teeming crowd of good-hearted strangers, acquaintances, and new friends (some only previously met on-line) who surrounded me with all of the qualities I described above. The majority of these good people didn’t know what was going on with me at all, and yet their presence grounded me, giving me a sense of safety and belonging, in spite of the disorientatation caused by my new health situation and cardiac symptoms.

Because of my personal vulnerability, I was especially sensitive to the social dynamics and emotional energy of those around me. The conference schedule is always packed, and between sleep deprivation and over-stimulation, most people get somewhat stressed. Taking almost a week away from home, traveling (in some cases, from very far away), and trying to pack a year’s worth of conversations into a few days… Well, I could see that I wasn’t the only person feeling vulnerable, tired, and at least a bit overwhelmed. This (like many other conferences) could easily have been an environment where gossip, exaggerated attention-seeking, belligerence, excess alcohol consumption, and generally unhealthy behavior would thrive.

Yet, incredibly, I observed gentleness and generosity on all sides, wise self-care and compassionate attention to the needs of others, respectful interactions between those who held differing points-of-view, and an atmosphere of warm, playful, appropriate willingness to share. Even awkward interactions seemed to be handled with grace and humor. Even casual conversations seemed trust-based and genuine.

In this context, I could make room for my own fears, needs, and confusion honestly without burdening those around me. My moods were constantly changing—one moment immersed in the enjoyment of the conference activities, the next moment straining at the limits of my physical and emotional resilience—but the container was a good one. As opportunities arose to talk with others about what I was experiencing, both the sharing and the responses seemed natural and mutually healing.

When I returned home, I felt more ready to face my cardiology appointment and treadmill stress test. Certainly, the company of dreamers (at the conference, and via the internet afterward) is helping me to absorb what I’m learning about my health as I adjust to my diagnosis (cardiomyopathy progressing toward heart failure) and prognosis (still uncertain). Does the fact that all these people consider dreams valuable make a difference in the way they relate to one another and to me? Does their dream interest at least partially account for their social skills and personal qualities? Since the conference, I’ve been holding this question as I lead my three dream groups and meet with individual clients for spiritual direction and dreamwork. The impression keeps being reinforced: When people explore dreams, it seems to bring out the best in them. Why is this? Continue reading

A Dream of Surrender and Hope: DreamTime Article

Click on the photo to read the article, and enter the woods…

For the Spring 2017 issue of DreamTime Magazine (a wonderful publication of the International Association for the Study of Dreams), I wrote a short article that really expresses the depths of my heart in these troubled times. My own dreams often invite surrender and offer hope—and I believe that such dreams can change our lives and our world in essential ways.

Please take a few minutes to read the article (by clicking on the photo)… And let’s talk about dreaming our way forward. How do your  dreams guide you? How might you choose to surrender old ways to follow a different path? And where do you find courage and hope?

Dreaming Up “The Bad Guys”

On my walk this morning, I saw a little boy dressed as a dragon, following his mother up a steep hill, roaring. He was tiny (barely four years old, probably) but formidable, in his fierce, floppy dragon-head hat, with his spiked tail swinging from side to side when he stomped his feet. Rows of green fins or scales lined his striped leggings and sleeves, and ran down his back. His sister (just a bit older) waited with their father at the top of the hill.

The little girl shouted, “Mom, are you the good guy?” Her mom, trudging up the hill, replied, “Yes. I’m the good guy.” The girl shouted, “You’re the good guy, and he’s the bad guy!” Mom said, tentatively, “Yes…”

The girl hollered at her brother, who had stopped walking to listen to the exchange: “You’re the bad guy! We’re the good guys! You’re the bad guy!” He stood with his mouth open—uncertain. Perhaps at first he’d intended to roar and be the bad guy, but his sister’s tone became increasingly taunting, and now it looked like he might decide to cry instead.

His mom couldn’t see his face, but his dad saw it and interceded, calling to him—“You’re not a bad guy.” And with that affirmation, the dragon burst out, in a teary wail of self-defense: “No! I’m not a bad guy! No, I’m not! I’m not a bad guy! I’M NOT A BAD GUY!”

Nobody really wants to be the bad guy. Yes, it feels powerful to make a lot of noise and to be a dragon… But, ultimately, the good guys are “us” and the bad guys are “them”—and being excluded from “us” just doesn’t feel right. Of course, this applies to the adult world as well as to the world of dragons and their older sisters.

In our present adult world, we’ve got a lot of noisy, dangerous “bad guys” in positions of authority, and many of us are running scared or trying to defend ourselves by defining ourselves as “us.” When we shout at the dragons and try to make them go away so that we can be a happy family of “good guys” without them… Well, good luck with that. I know that Donald Trump has virtually nothing in common with the adorable little boy in the dragon suit, yet I can’t help thinking maybe that’s how he started out. If bad guys exist, he’s certainly a bad guy. But how helpful is the whole game of bad guys and good guys anyway?

In dreams, the bad guys can seem truly awful. There’s someone dangerous, something horrible, some monstrous creature that does unbearable things. In nightmares, the damage done by these bad guys feels terribly real. Even in waking life, we can get caught up in a movie scenario where everything is reduced to the worst possible bad people against the best, most peaceful, most reasonable, good people… It seems like this is the way things actually are. But when the movie ends, we find that the world is much more complex and subtle and paradoxical than it seemed. The world is not a movie. Dreams are not movies, either. Unlike the popular clichés in those blockbuster films, dreams potentially express the richness of real life. While nightmares may play out the bad guy/good guy dichotomy, they also invite us to explore the possibilities surrounding such simplistic scenarios.

If I listen to the bad guy in the dream, I find that he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy—and maybe I learn something, even if I still don’t like him much. If I look at all of the other elements in the dream—the dragon costumes, the sets and supporting characters, the unexpected emotions and inconsistent details—then I find that I have to include everything in order to have any real understanding of what is actually going on.

There’s no “us” and “them” in a dream—it’s all me, or something larger than me: the dreamer and the dream-maker. The human family includes the good guys and the bad guys, the dragons, big sisters, parents, and observers. The dream is a big, intricate, inconsistent story. Every aspect of that story deserves my care and attention. Continue reading

Dream Thoughts

How does your mind work in a dream? It’s generally assumed that we think differently (or not at all) when we’re dreaming—but, if you’re anything like me, your dream-thoughts are actually not that different from your waking thoughts. It’s just that, in dreams, there are different things to think about, and different assumptions about what’s important. My recent dreams have included a lot of thinking. Maybe it’s because my “inner work” right now is not particularly sensational or dramatic—my concerns are subtle and reflective rather than active.

When we are learning to recognize our challenges and limitations, we may need to confront them  directly through powerfully instructive events in our dreaming and waking lives that either exaggerate or expose our habit patterns. As we get to know ourselves better, we may be able to see the problem played out over and over again, without being able to do much about it—but gradually, as the same scenes are repeatedly reenacted, we bring more awareness to our experiences. We begin to have time to pause and consider what is going on, how it works, and whether it’s consistent with our personal integrity and values. Eventually, we’ve had enough, and it becomes possible to interrupt the predictable process and make a change.

So, all my “thinking” dreams suggest that I’m working toward an understanding that will facilitate real transformation. I don’t need to participate in the drama, I need to comprehend it. Dreams where thinking predominates can be very creative—offering new perspectives on old problems, new insights into our own and others’ behavior. Often, they present questions without answers, and ask us to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing what to do.

Here’s a recent example from my own dreamworld:

Catching Shoplifters: I catch two blond girls (about ten and eight years old) shoplifting in a store owned by a friend of mine. The older one has tucked a pair of gloves up her sleeve. I confront them and take the gloves back. The girls are defiant at first, but then seem very frightened and I soften my tone, realizing that their mother has forced them to steal, and will hurt them if they go home empty-handed. I start to give the gloves back to them, and even consider giving them some plastic toy telescopes that are hanging on a rack nearby. But then I remember that it wouldn’t be fair to the business-owner to let this stealing continue. What if I go with the girls and confront their mother? But, no—if I confront her, then as soon as I leave she will punish them for getting caught. Whatever I do to her will be taken out on them. So, I can’t change this situation. For now, there are no good alternatives. I decide to step back and wait until I understand things better before I act. I’ll buy the girls some lunch, and let them go without my interference. But I am committed to finding a way to help these children and prevent further harm.

Helplessness is a big theme in our country right now. There’s injustice on a grand scale, theft, coercion, unkindness, and shameful conduct in our government that reflects similar patterns and problems we can also see in our immediate environment. We may be able to control our own behavior, but we are presented with situations outside of ourselves that we cannot control. What do we do about that? Well, impulsive reactions are not helpful. Suppressing our awareness and looking the other way is not helpful, either. We need to pause, care about what is happening, and give ourselves time to think. I’m trying to do this in my dreams and in my waking life.

Connecting with My First Lover: I’m angry about some careless and inconsiderate people. My first lover [a woman I haven’t seen in almost forty years] gently points out that I’m being critical before I know the whole story. Those people didn’t actually forget to pick up after themselves, and they didn’t mean to take something that wasn’t theirs. I think about this. I might have misread the situation. I apologize. She is very kind. We hug, and she smiles at me, saying, “We have a deep connection, don’t we?”

As a teenager and young adult, I began to question my own self-righteousness about politics and personal relationships. I was trying to stand up for something important, but I was beginning to recognize that life is complicated and paradoxical. I was beginning to imagine different points of view, check my assumptions, and think deeply about my concerns and the ramifications of my actions. Thirty or more years later, these questions and concerns have not been resolved, but I can connect with the earnest effort I made (and still make) to see beyond my own prejudices. I can trust kindness, gentle correction, and the courage to acknowledge mistakes. I can connect with the wisdom to wait and think about my own agenda. A relationship that introduced me to intimacy becomes a metaphor for learning to take a risk and open up to other perspectives. Continue reading

A Dream By Any Other Name

We’ve all used the word “dream” when we talk about a positive waking vision or hope for the future. While struggling with our current political nightmare, I find myself dreaming (imagining a better future) this way more often—such dreaming is a manifestation of longing, and longing has power. I dream of healing for the earth, and for all living things. I dream of kindness, fairness, simplicity, generosity, gratitude, integrity, beauty, cooperation, balance, peace. These are collective dreams, of course, shared by many millions of human beings all over the world—and perhaps by other creatures as well. Just as our sleep-dreams have archetypal images and themes, so do our waking dream-visions of what goodness could be. We have a common vocabulary for our longing, and even those who are greedy and hateful may dream of these positive possibilities (at least for themselves and their friends).

Yet, such waking dreams rarely have much substance. They are often abstractions rather than fully realized imaginings. I can “dream” of world peace—but what would that actually look like? Unlike most daydreams, our sleep-dreams have emotional richness, physical details, stories and surprises; although they may lack the coherence of conscious intention, they make a substantial impression because they are lived experiences, not just intangible ideas. We may try to imagine the future in a positive way, but our daydreams usually lack direct experiential weight. Our night-dreams have more vivid “reality.”

When Holly and I went to the humane society to adopt a kitten seven years ago, we dreamed (imagined, hoped) that our new family member would be sweet and special and a joy in our lives; we dreamed that we’d love him. But we could never have imagined Toby himself—the deaf cat whose voice sounded like a donkey braying; the little guy who bravely overcame his fear of balloons, liked to drink the bathwater, and would gaze soulfully into our eyes, begging for tiny bits of apple. Our Toby. Dreaming up a person (whether that person is human or cat) is not the same as experiencing that person. Although my daydream of who Toby might be could not measure up to Toby himself, my night-dreams of Toby, since his early death a few months ago, have been filled with the full intensity of his living presence.

What if our daydreams—our true longings—could have the same resonance, reality, narrative strength and specific impact as our night-dreams? Recently, for example, I had a vivid sleep-dream image: I’m seeing the coast of California from the air, and all the coastal cities are under water—I can feel the jolt of sad realization that climate change has already gone too far….

When I woke from this dream, the intensity of the feelings made my daydreamed longing for a healed relationship between humanity and the earth, between human cities and coastal ecosystems, much more real. I could smell the sea and hear the rustling of grasses in the salt marshes; I could feel the energy and vitality of city people and city life; I could sense the pulse of the planet, and the movement of meltwater. I could feel the real consequences of our human environmental carelessness, and I could truly imagine what it might mean if we moved toward a reciprocal, respectful relationship with the planet we inhabit.

When we have big dreams (longings)—like Martin Luther King Jr. did, or like our wisest, kindest, most courageous selves can—they are as real as our vibrant night-dreams. We need to imagine our longings as fully realized. This is not always possible, but it is something to move toward. Continue reading

Facing the Monster: Responding to the Nightmare of a Trump Presidency

monster-01Well, the nightmare has come out from under the bed and is now in plain sight, in our very own country, where we might have imagined we were safe. The monster is not Donald Trump, but the hate, fear and ugliness he embodies. And the nightmare can only be changed into a new dream for our future if we face that monster head on—resisting not only the monstrous message and agenda of this administration, but the echoes of that monster in ourselves.

There are many constructive ways of approaching our sleep nightmares, and similar approaches can apply to the nightmares that confront us when we are fully awake. One of the most helpful dreamwork techniques involves becoming lucid—which means becoming aware that you are dreaming in the midst of a dream—and then moving toward the thing that most scares you, encountering it directly instead of succumbing to blind helplessness.

I won’t go into methods for becoming lucid in a dream here, because I’m more interested right now in how we become lucid in the midst of our present waking nightmare. We become lucid by acknowledging that this nightmare is part of a big dream we’ve all dreamed up together. We face the monster and move towards it by recognizing the ways our own hate and fear can shape our perceptions and actions. By consciously and collectively turning that energy in a new direction, we will be able to resist its monstrous manifestations in the world around us. Continue reading

Dreaming and Daring: Meeting the Unknown Every Night

ocean with rocks 02

I am suggesting that the crazy nature of dreams is precisely what makes them useful and meaningful. Each night when we sleep, dreams combine fragments of our personal lives (memories, recent incidents, perceptions, sensations) with something more essential and shared (archetypal imagery, body and earth wisdom, a vital sense of meaning and connection). All of this same stuff is available to us when we are awake, but in our dreams it is organized in crazy ways, with a pattern-producing randomness similar to that which creates fractals in nature. It is my belief that the all-inclusive chaotic patterning behind dream craziness is actually closer to “the way things really are” than the self-reinforcing information structures that make up our waking conception of reality.
-Kirsten Backstrom, “Dreaming and Daring”

At the recent 2015 Psiber-Dreaming Conference (an exciting international on-line event that explores the outer reaches of dreamwork and dream studies), I offered a presentation called  “Dreaming and Daring: Meeting the Unknown Every Night.” 

This paper is a playful adventure into the Open Mind Theory of Dreams…

Click on the picture to plunge in and read on…

Reconnecting with the World Dream

compass rose 01Have you heard of “The Work That Reconnects”? Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe describe it as “a process that helps build motivation, creativity, courage, and solidarity for the transition to a sustainable human culture.” It’s a sequential process that “works as a spiral, because it repeats itself” over and over in our projects, in our lives, and in our dreams. As I learned more about this process, I became aware of how clearly it parallels some of the things I’ve been learning and teaching about the potential of dreamwork to make a difference in the world.

Our dreams reflect passages through the process of “The Work That Reconnects”—including, expressing, and revealing the levels in Macy’s spiral: 1) Coming From Gratitude; 2) Honoring Our Pain; 3) Seeing With New Eyes; and 4) Going Forth.

1) “Coming From Gratitude: To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe—to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it—is a wonder beyond words. The spiral begins with gratitude because that quiets the frantic mind and grounds us, stimulating our empathy and confidence.” –Joanna Macy and Sam Mowe

We belong to this world, and are manifestations of this world, together with the plants, animals and other humans that share in it with us. Dreams manifest the life force, and are one way that we maintain connection—to our place within the world and to one another. Often, in dreams, we experience beauty and feel this connection directly through our senses, perceptions, and emotions. We can receive nourishment from such dreams, and allow gratitude to fill the springs within us that we thought had gone dry.

Many times, when I’ve been identifying with discouragement and investing in impossibility, a dream has turned me around, waking me up to another way of looking at myself and my experience. My ego can’t change its mind so easily, but my dreams can show me what I’ve been missing and open my heart. When I share such dreams with others, and they share such dreams with me, our world is expanded. Each time I take part in a dream group, I come home with a new appreciation of my life—I’m humbled by the gifts available all around me, and I’m grateful. Continue reading

Bees and Babies: “Culture Dreams”

frost 01Here’s a recent dream that led me to think about larger meanings:

The Cold Baby: Wandering the halls of a hospital, looking for a sick friend who was taken here. I come upon a room crowded with cribs—in rows and stacked against the walls. The room is stark and cold, and the cribs are filled with sick babies, including tiny newborns. A very small one is lying on the bare floor, swaddled tightly so that she is the size and shape of a short loaf of French bread. Her face is bluish with cold. Someone has forgotten to put her back in her crib, and she is badly chilled—still and silent, with closed eyes. I pick her up and hold her against me, trying to warm her before putting her back in the crib. I don’t know whether she will survive.

At first, I was tempted to approach this as a “soul retrieval” dream [see “Soul Retrieval and Shamanic Dreaming”]—a dream relating to my personal history and the need to recover child-like aspects of myself that have been lost, abandoned, or “frozen out.” But there were elements of this dream that were inconsistent with a personal soul retrieval experience.

Often, my feelings within the dream and upon awakening can tell me a lot about the best way to look at that particular dream. In the case of “The Cold Baby,” I feel distress and urgency when I find the tiny child has been left out in the cold—but the feelings are not personal or overwhelming (as they would have been if this had been a waking life experience). There is more of an abstract sense that something is very wrong, and needs to be corrected.

According to psychologist and dreamworker Meredith Sabini, “Culture Dreams,” which are more significant for the culture as a whole than for the individual dreamer, are often marked by this kind of objectivity. Approaches such as seeking personal associations to the dream images, or viewing those images as aspects of the dreamer, may not be particularly helpful. Continue reading

Indescribable Dreams

web 01Where do I begin? How can I convey this dream experience to you, when I can’t even quite catch hold of it for myself? I’d been asleep for only an hour or two when I had this dream. Then, I woke for a few minutes, with the dream still fresh in my mind—but, not exactly as a memory…. In a sense the dream was still happening, even though I couldn’t quite remember it. I soon slipped back into sleep, and this peculiar dreaming experience seemed to continue in some way for the rest of the night: throughout my other dreams, and through my brief periods of wakefulness, and maybe even during the stretches of deep, “dreamless” sleep. I woke in the morning filled with the essence of this amazing dreaming.

But what was the content of this dreaming? It’s so hard to describe.

There is an awareness, in the dream, that “I” have left my physical body and am now just consciousness, taking many different forms. There are rich interactions with others, and I feel myself as a sort of “me” character, but also as every other character, and as the context, and as the communication itself that flows among us. We are in a large stone building, in an echoing room. I am aware of being the echo. We are outside, sailing through the air, over water. At one point, there’s a huge dinosaur-like creature, swimming in a narrow waterway—I see this as if from far above, and at the same time I am the creature swimming, and the water, and the surrounding landscape. There’s a thought that my physical body is still around here somewhere (sleeping in bed?), and I will be able to return to that body. But also a sense that when the body dies, there will still be this consciousness—there is always this consciousness—and it won’t be lost. There is complete freedom in this experience,but also total immersion.

This dreaming might be considered a “numinous dream,” a “Big dream.” Experientially, it is equivalent to a spiritual epiphany, the kind of mind-opening breakthrough into a larger conception of self and reality that William James described in his classic text, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” And, for me, it was wonderful. It gave me a direct sense of being a part of something beyond my ego-identity, something vast and fascinating that I could trust absolutely. Never mind that I can’t fully remember or tell what happened. It was the kind of experience that makes the idea of our ultimate interconnectedness immediately real, rather than an abstraction.

However, I doubt if I will include this particular dream among the “Big dreams” that I keep with me and share, and use to remind myself of the potential for profound spiritual experience. Why not? Well, because this dream does not have a frame of reference, a storyline or a structure that makes it possible to describe it, or even recall it, in any way that is recognizable to waking consciousness. So, the dream lifts me up and gives me a glimpse of something, but when it sets me back down on the ground, I don’t know how to frame the awesome expanse of sky and clouds that surrounded me up there, in terms of the streets and people and buildings that surround me down here. They’re different worlds, and there’s no evident connection between them. Continue reading

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